21 Nov How To Stop Defensiveness From Ruining Your Relationship.

We humans are imperfect creatures, and we all make mistakes, so even in healthy relationships it’s inevitable that partners will disappoint each other at times. Whether it’s forgetting to buy the milk, or something far more serious, in all relationships, and even if only unintentionally, there will be times when we let each other down.

Disappointing your partner at times is inevitable, but you get to choose what happens next.

Portrait of strong boxer woman in red t-shirt with freckles with fist. looking at camera, studio shot. isolated on white background.

I see so many couples in relationships that aren’t as happy as they should be, and usually there are many reasons why this is the case. But one of these reasons is that they get defensive when confronted with evidence of their own imperfectness.

The reason why defensiveness is so harmful to healthy relationships is that a partner who is defensive is a partner unable to be accountable for his or her own imperfectness.

Given that everyone is imperfect, this then holds each partner, and the relationship itself, to a standard of perfection that is utterly unachievable. It simply doesn’t work.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical couple and two Scenarios: Scenario A (where our partners are defensive with each other), and Scenario B (where our partners are NOT defensive with each other). I’ll use a really basic issue in order to keep things simple:

Scenario A: (an example of what defensiveness sounds like)

Partner A asks Partner B: “You forgot to buy the milk?”

Partner B responds defensively: “Well what about YOU! You forgot to fill the car up with petrol!”

What I’ve observed is that when partners get defensive with each other, they turn a normal disappointment into something that’s a much bigger deal altogether.

Now, our hypothetical couple are arguing about the car not getting petrol as well as the milk being forgotten.

And, if being defensive is the order of the day, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine Partner A responding next with “Yea? Well, at least I don’t pick my nose when watching television” (or some other further allegation of imperfectness in the other)…

Defensiveness breeds defensiveness, and so on and so on.

If you tend to get defensive when in some way large or small, you’ve been imperfect and disappointed your partner, it’s important to be wise about what you’ll do next. If you default to defensiveness, it pays to remember that defensiveness will heavily influence the culture of the relationship that you’re both creating.

If you allow your partner’s disappointment to “land”, would it really be such a big deal?

Now lets take a look at Scenario B:

Partner A asks Partner B: “You forgot to buy the milk?”

Partner B responds WITHOUT BEING DEFENSIVE: “OMG! I was actually in the cold section at the supermarket and I walked right past it! How annoying! I’m sorry. Are you heading out soon, or do I need to duck back out and get some?”.

What I’ve observed is that when partners can accept their own imperfectness, they don’t need to get defensive. And when partners don’t get defensive, they’re able to deal with the inevitable relationship disappointments without further escalation of drama or conflict.

Instead of getting drawn into a tit-for-tat blame game about who is the most imperfect partner, couples in healthy relationships simply acknowledge it when they let each other down, and move on.

Whether it’s the small stuff like forgetting the milk, or the really big relationship stuff that all couples need to deal with at one time or another, it’s like saying “Yep, I’m human. I let you down. I’m sorry. I’m accountable for my mistake and willing to do what’s necessary. Now, what’s something more positive we can be focussing on?”

I’ve seen time and time again in my work with couples that it’s not the stuff that actually happens in any relationship, but the way partners choose to respond to it, that makes the difference between a relationship that struggles and one that truly thrives.

Marriage research by Gottman has identified defensiveness as one of the four most damaging relational behaviours, (you can read more about this research here). And I see the consequences of this every day in my work with couples who play an unwinnable game of defensiveness that might as well be called “You are a more imperfect partner than I am”. No-body wins.

Want to weed defensiveness out of your relationship culture?

Start by catching yourself being defensive. Next time you stuff up, challenge yourself to let your partner’s disappointment “land”. It’s not the end of the world to admit you’ve let him or her down. Resist the temptation to throw an allegation of his or her imperfectness back… just be accountable and apologise if warranted.

You’ll soon discover why partners in healthy relationships don’t do defensiveness. It breeds more defensiveness, and feels bad.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.